RUTH AND ME
by Eve B. MacMaster
This article is published jointly with Mennonite
Life, the historical publication of Bethel College, North Newton,
Kans. Mennonite Life is published online at http://www.bethelks.edu/mennonitelife.
Dick saw her first.
"I've met the most extraordinary woman," he
said. "She's like one of those old Quaker women you see at protests and
peace marches-strong character, strong convictions. You've got to meet
It took awhile for me to share my husband's
enthusiasm for Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus. Dick had made connections with
Grant Stoltzfus and other Mennonite historians soon after we moved to
the Harrisonburg area in 1972, but I was at home with our two little
boys and knew Grant and Ruth only second-hand, through Dick's reports,
though once I heard them speak briefly at a public meeting.
When Grant died in July 1974, Dick and I
attended the memorial service-our first experience of a service in a
Mennonite church. We sat in the balcony, with a clear view of the
family sitting on the front pews. What I remember most vividly from
that evening was feeling amazed when Ruth rose to address the
congregation from her pew, speaking at length about her marriage, even
telling an anecdote about an argument over an air conditioner.
A few months later Dick and I, our two little
boys, and our baby daughter began to attend Park View Mennonite Church
regularly, and I soon came face to face with Ruth. It was in the church
basement after Sunday school; I was carrying baby Sarah in my arms, and
Sam and Tom were fussing at each other behind me. I remember how tall
she was and feeling more than a little intimidated.
Another couple invited us to join one of the
small fellowship groups at Park View that met weekly in homes for Bible
study, personal sharing, and prayer. The group included Ruth, and at
our very first meeting she and I got into an argument. She said
something about Billy Graham's support for the Vietnam War negating his
Christian witness, and I challenged her. She disputed my point, and I
disagreed with what she said. We went back and forth for several
minutes without coming to agreement, and then she smiled and said, "I
haven't had such a good time since Grant died!"
We were friends after that. In 1976 she was one
of a small number of people I consulted about enrolling in the Master
of Divinity program at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, and when I felt
oppressed by the misogynist attitudes rampant at the seminary in those
days, she encouraged me to continue my studies. In turn, I encouraged
her to send her talks to the church press for publication. We began to
meet weekly for breakfast, and over a restaurant meal we would, as she
phrased it, "settle all the problems of the church and the world."
Our children adored her. When Tom was about five
years old, he drew a picture of Park View Church with a tall stick
figure in a skirt standing in front of the door-Ruth Stoltzfus, of
For me, too, Ruth was the symbol of the
Mennonite Church. I was inspired by her bold public witness and moral
certitude on issues of peace and justice. Her courage was a model for
me, even when I didn't share her clarity of vision.
In those days Ruth had a full schedule of
appointments, many of them involving travel. I was at home with three
children, editing Park View's monthly newsletter, taking seminary
classes part time, and writing stories and articles for publication. It
was a natural next step in our relationship to collaborate on writing
In the winter of 1978-79 Ruth was invited by the
Women's Concerns Committee of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to
compile a report on the subject of "Women in a Speaking Ministry." It
was, of course, a subject close to her heart, but she hardly had time
to write her talks, she said. How could she take on such an assignment?
Besides, she'd rather speak than write. "Let's do it together," I
suggested, and we did. The report was published by MCC in February 1980.
The same thing happened a few years later, when
the denominational women's organization asked Ruth to write the 1985-86
annual devotional guide. Ruth was still recovering from cancer surgery
and saving her energy for speaking appointments. But the topic WMSC
proposed was compelling-the Book of Ruth as a model for women's
friendships. Ruth and I could enact the Ruth-Naomi relationship even as
we collaborated on the devotional guide. Since I was in the middle of
writing the Herald Press Story Bible series, it seemed natural for me
to write the Bible commentary and for Ruth, with her many years of
experience in speaking to women's groups, to provide the discussion
These were also the years that Ruth was
strengthened in her sense that she should tell the story of her public
ministry in print. Throughout her adult life, she had kept a journal
and saved copies of every letter she wrote. She put her stories of her
childhood and youth into paragraph form and labeled the notebook,
"Blueberries and Briers," the working title for her autobiography. She
paid a typist to transfer her writings onto the computer, and she made
inquiries of the editors at Mennonite Publishing House, who expressed
interest in a book of "stories of my years."
At our weekly breakfast meetings she shared
several versions of accounts of her childhood, youth, and the beginning
of the Heart to Heart broadcast. But the volume of material was
overwhelming; she said once that her grandson Reuben had estimated that
she had 8,000 pages of autobiographical material on the computer.
In 1986 our family moved to northwest Ohio, but
I didn't lose contact with Ruth. We bought a house in Bluffton, just a
few miles from Pandora, where Ruth had served as interim pastor from
September 1982 to June 1983. I visited the parsonage where Ruth had
shoveled snow, and Grace Mennonite Church next door, where she had
weathered the flag controversy.
When I came back to Virginia to visit my
parents, Ruth and I would meet for breakfast, and the conversation
nearly always turned to the book. Church and family responsibilities
were so overwhelming, she said, that she had made a contingency plan:
would I agree, that if she should die before completing the book, I
would finish it, and her niece Emily would see the manuscript through
publication? Of course I would.
In 1994 Dick and I moved to Lancaster County,
Pa., and Ruth and I set up a schedule to meet regularly to work on the
book. About once a month I would drive south down Interstate 81 and she
would drive north, and we would meet at a Mennonite restaurant in
Maryland. It soon became apparent that she wasn't making progress, and
driving that far on the interstate was becoming increasingly difficult
for her. In the summer of 1998 Ruth's children encouraged her to turn
the project over to me for completion, pointing out how much she would
enjoy seeing the final publication.
I was glad to help as a labor of love, but Ruth
insisted on paying my expenses and an hourly rate based on what I was
paid by Mennonite Church General Board as editor of Voice, the
monthly magazine of the denominational women's organization.
How do you tell the story of a life? How do you
create a narrative that communicates the truth of another person's
personality and character? How do you speak in another person's voice
The first step was for Ruth to turn over her
notebooks to me, and then her son Eugene put on a Zip disk the 8,000
pages of journal notes and letters Ruth had selected as the raw
material for the book. I arranged the stories into chapters and
subchapters and the sentences into paragraphs. But the record on
Eugene's Zip left gaps. Ruth's memory was failing. How could I create a
narrative when I didn't know what had been left out?
Ruth readily agreed to give me access to
whatever I needed, and I drove to Harrisonburg and filled up the trunk
and back seat of my Honda with journals, notebooks, newsletters, and
boxes of family papers. I assured her that sensitive family material
would not be made public, but explained again that I needed more
information than what was on the computer or even what would finally be
The missing pieces began to fall into place.
Letters to Frances Dean Strickland filled out the picture of Ruth the
teenage missionary and Ruth the young bride. Newsletters from the
Civilian Public Service camp displayed unexpected playfulness. The
Heart to Heart newsletter gave me a sense of the community that
produced and listened to the broadcast.
The hardest part was deciding what to leave out,
especially in the later chapters, because Ruth had so much
documentation on her pastorates and ordination. How could I do justice
to the story without wearying the reader? How could I keep the
narrative energy flowing without omitting significant details? And
which details were significant? Ruth's own long-windedness was the
subject of more than one family story.
In one of the boxes of family letters and
keepsakes I found a copy of her father's story about his parents, told
in verse as well as prose. Like many others, I was enchanted by the
drama and pathos of grandmother Susanna losing and then finding
grandfather Henry. That tale not only helped form Ruth's sense of
family and self, it has become part of the larger Mennonite community's
heritage, having been retold in several collections of stories and on
stage by Ruth's daughter Helen.
Like her father, Ruth broke into verse when she
was deeply moved, and so I decided to include the full text of several
of her poems, even the long "Personal Psalm of Praise, Petition, and
The rationale for including Helen's story of her
father's death was different. Helen's account described Grant's
personality more vividly than anything I found in Ruth's journals or
heard from her in conversation, and Ruth's story seemed incomplete
Ruth's strong personality and vision of her life
and mission were in place early. I looked for doubt and reflection, and
found unwavering focus. As she makes clear in her preface, Ruth's
self-understanding was of a woman on a journey, a pilgrim overcoming
obstacles in order to fulfill the destiny the Lord had prepared for
her. That sense of purpose kept her from self-doubt when others
questioned her breaking out of the traditional woman's role that
confined her spirit.
The pain in her life came from the sense of
failure when her family didn't match the idealized picture she
described of her childhood home, an ideal she taught others to strive
for. It was easier for her to talk about Allen's agnosticism than about
Grant's depression. She wasn't reflective, but her spiritual integrity
led her to an honesty about herself that I found endearing. Christian
humility leavened family pride.
Her faith in the Lord never wavered. When I
visited her in the hospital in Charlottesville after her surgery for
colon cancer, I found her lying flat on her back, speaking about her
hope for a reunion in heaven with her departed dear ones, and her
confidence in her Savior.
Ruth was never girlish; she was always a lady.
She had beautiful Southern manners, rooted in a genuine concern for
other people. Even when she was in conflict with another person's
position on an issue, she never failed in graciousness, never made her
criticism personal. It was a source of pride and comfort to her that
people in Pandora who differed from her about displaying the flag in
church accepted her as their pastor.
She was a loyal friend, generous in praise and
quick to share credit. Years after she had a photographer take pictures
of our son Tom to update her family life newspaper ads, she would send
him a dollar bill as a "modeling fee" every time she used one of the
photos. She charged way below market price for the apartments she
rented to students. Her pleasure was in helping people, befriending
international students, serving her God by serving others.
There are missing pieces. The written record
does not communicate the sense of fun we had over those breakfast
conversations. The careful record of accounts received and sermons
preached doesn't tell the full story of debts forgiven, hospitality
extended, prayers uttered for friends and strangers, and the sheer
personal force of that unique and extraordinary woman, my friend Ruth.
Eve MacMaster is the author
of the ten-volume Story Bible Series, published by Herald Press, and a
former editor of Voice, the monthly magazine of the
WMSC. She has taught in Turkey, at Eastern Mennonite University, James
Madison University, and at Bluffton College. Currently she serves as
pastor of Emmanuel Mennonite Church, Gainesville, Fla.